Once again, we are being treated to the ugly sight of politicians and relatives meddling in the lives of children and undercutting the authority of parents.

Two cases are in public play right now, and while they differ in particulars, the fundamentals are the same: Children are being used as pawns in adult power struggles. The selfishness and smug self-righteousness of adults who provoke these controversies know no bounds. If the adults truly cared about the children, they would not thrust them into the center of a hugely public legal wrangle that will stigmatize these children as "different" throughout their childhood.

The first case, of course, involves the 6-year-old Cuban child, Elian Gonzalez, who was found floating in an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean after his mother drowned trying to reach the United States.

Elian has been gathered in by a great-aunt and great-uncle, and the Cuban community in Miami has made the child a cause clebre. His father, a hotel worker in Cuba, wants him returned so that he can raise the boy in Cuba. His great-aunt and great-uncle, who have virtually no standing in the matter, are battling to keep him in the United States on grounds that he will have a better life here.

The irony of that argument is that the privations Cuban children endure can be laid squarely at the door of the very expatriates and obdurate reactionaries in this country who have stymied efforts to normalize diplomatic and trade relations with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service, quite correctly, decided that it was in the boy's best interest to be returned to his father, the anti-Castro militants took to the streets, tied up traffic and even planned to try to stop traffic at Miami International Airport. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has stepped into the act and subpoenaed the boy's testimony before a House committee Feb. 10, effectively delaying his return to his homeland.

This whole thing is proving a marvelous opportunity for anti-communists to drag out their dreary old Cold War rhetoric and to get into the news again. Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) met with the boy's relatives. According to an Associated Press report, the boy told Smith, in Spanish: "Help me. I don't want to go back to Cuba." What a sophisticated 6-year-old!

Another case that's making news involves grandparents Jenifer and Gary Troxel, who are waging a seven-year-old battle to win court-ordered visitation rights with the two girls their son fathered before he committed suicide in 1993. Their case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court today. According to a story in Sunday's Washington Post by Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic, the dispute centers on a Washington state law, similar to laws in all states, that allows grandparents or any third party to seek time with the child if a court finds that it would be in the child's best interest.

The Troxels wanted to have an entire weekend visit every other week. A judge allowed them once-a-month visits from 4:30 p.m. Saturday until 6 p.m. Sunday. The girls' mother, Tommie Granville Wynn, appealed the decision, and on Christmas Eve in 1998, the Washington state Supreme Court threw out the law on grounds that it infringed on parents' constitutional privacy interests.

Let's turn from the law now to look at the family. Tommie Granville Wynn had three children from a previous marriage. She had two children with Brad Troxel, Natalie and Isabelle, now 10 and 8. After their father's death, she married Kelly Wynn, a businessman with two children of his own. Then they had a child together, for a total of eight children in the family.

Blending families is not for the faint of heart. It takes the skills of a seasoned diplomat and the patience of a nun. It takes enormous understanding of all the experiences and emotions that various children and adults in the extended family bring to the table. This is especially true when two of the children are dealing with the suicide of a parent. Above all, it takes time for the children to get to know each other, for the new adult in the picture to get to know the children and for the family to begin operating as a single unit.

The last thing on earth Tommie Granville Wynn needed while she was confronting this Herculean task was a couple of meddling grandparents taking over every other weekend. In one of her filings with the Supreme Court, Wynn said that she never tried to cut off all access to the girls but that she wanted to limit it to one weekend day a month so her new family would have enough time to be together.

This case has forged some strange alliances: Grandparents groups are lining up behind the Troxels, with arguments about the strong bond between grandparents and grandchildren. Religious groups, wanting to protect the privacy rights of families, are making common cause with civil libertarians. Gay rights groups are trying to protect gay parents from meddling judges while protecting access to children of former partners.

The operating principle in all of these cases should be the best interest of a child. Unless a parent is shown to be unfit, the parent is the person who should be determining what's in the child's best interests, and not a court of law. Adults who provoke these situations always put a sanctimonious spin on their motives, but what's really involved is nothing more or less than mean-spirited power plays.

The Cuban exile community is wasting what little standing it has by its ridiculous reaction to the INS decision. As for the Troxels, the fact that they would drag Tommie Granville Wynn through seven years of litigation while she is trying to raise a large and complicated family speaks volumes about their motives--none of it good.